13 wicked problems in assessing students in higher education

The concept of ‘Wicked problems’ is often used to refer to complex problems such as climate change or social inequality. Rittel and Webber (1973 –open access) outline 10 characteristics of ‘wicked problems’: 1  ‘Wicked’ does not been mean ‘evil’ here, but in set in contrast to ‘tame’ problems which are potentially solvable, even if they are very complex. 2

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

Here are 12 questions we face regarding the assessment of students in higher education -- this list is by no means exaustive. If you are convinced any of these are not ‘wicked problems’ I’d love to hear from you. Some of these are UK specific, but every country will have its own version of the problem. The same problems are true of other sectors of education as well.

  1. Is the UK degree classification system fit for purpose?
  2. Should/ can student work be assessed anonymously?
  3. Are some courses under assessed or over-assessed?
  4. Is a degree from one university the same standard as the same class of degree from another UK university?
  5. Is a degree from a UK university equal to a degree (in the same subject) from a university in another country?
  6. What say should students have in how they are assessed?
  7. (When) does an assessment accommodation (e.g. for disability) provide an advantage? E.g. how much extra time in exams is needed to gain an unfair advantage?
  8. Could a student object to a form of assessment for moral, ethical or religious reasons? How should they be accommodated (if at all)?
  9. Are assessment regulations across a university consistent? Should they be?
  10. Are students able to avoid particular topics of types of assessment through strategic module choice?
  11. Are too many students getting ‘good degrees’? Why is the growth in the number of students getting good degrees often cited as evidence of falling standards?
  12. Why (in the UK) do we call marks ‘percentages’ when we rarely give marks above 80 or below 30?
  13.  Are we under assessing formatively and over assessing summatively?  (From Juliet Eve)
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  1. Rittel, H. W. J. and Webber, M. M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4, pp. 155-169
  2. I don’t know if people still say ‘wicked' to mean ‘cool’ or ‘great’, but it doesn’t mean that either.

One thought on “13 wicked problems in assessing students in higher education

  1. A 13th here from my colleague Juliet Eve: 13. Are we under assessing formatively and over assessing summatively?

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